Tuesday morning, the UT System Board of Regents named Heather Wilson, Ph.D., the next president of The University of Texas at El Paso. She begins her new role August 15, 2019.
Wilson’s accomplished career in public service and higher education has spanned more than 35 years and includes top leadership roles in higher education, the military, government and private industry.
Regents approved the appointment at a special called meeting of the board today. Wilson was unanimously selected as the sole finalist for the position at a board meeting March 8. Under state law, university governing boards must name finalists for a presidency at least 21 days before making an appointment.
Wilson was appointed Secretary of the U.S. Air Force in 2017 and oversees 685,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces, and an annual budget of $160 billion. Prior to that appointment, she served as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, an engineering and science research university, from 2013 to 2017.
In 1998, Wilson became the first female military veteran elected to a full term in Congress, representing New Mexico until 2009.
After she graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in its third class to admit women and was selected as a Rhodes Scholar – one of the world’s most celebrated and distinguished international fellowships – she served as an Air Force officer for seven years. She was subsequently appointed to the National Security Council and as cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
Board Chairman Kevin Eltife acknowledged that many members of the UTEP and El Paso communities had contacted the regents to express both praise and criticism of Wilson. The criticism of Wilson focused mostly on her voting record while in Congress, representing the constituency of New Mexico’s 1st congressional district after being elected in 1998.
“Our job as regents is to select the best possible person to lead an institution, to make it a better version of itself in every way, from academics to the arts, from research to athletics. We select presidents who make students their top priority, by focusing on all areas of student success in and out of the classroom – from academic advising to support services like counseling, wellness and mental health,” Eltife said.
“My colleagues on the board and I have listened to the concerns raised, but we also have considered Sec. Wilson’s professional experiences over decades, each of which demonstrated she has always focused on the well-being and advancement of the people and communities she has served. Furthermore, colleagues everywhere, throughout government to higher education, who have worked closely with Sec. Wilson commend her for her impressive leadership, diplomacy, vision and compassion.
“We are proud of the UTEP community, especially students, who got involved in this process, including those who supported Sec. Wilson and those who opposed her,” Eltife added. “We will work with Dr. Wilson as the incoming president of UTEP to earn their trust and respect. I have no doubt she will be an outstanding president.”
A search advisory committee that included two UT institution presidents, three members of the Board of Regents, representatives from UTEP students, faculty, staff and deans, as well as alumni and members of the El Paso community, reviewed candidates and made recommendations to the Board of Regents.
Prior to today’s vote, Wilson visited El Paso twice to meet with several hundred students, staff, faculty, alumni and community and elected officials.
“No institution means more to the future of El Paso and Juarez region than UTEP. Its deep commitment to providing access to education and excellence in research is a model for the nation,” Wilson said. “UTEP is a catalyst for economic growth in the fourth largest manufacturing region in North America – the source of ideas and high quality education to meet the needs of the 21st century. I look forward to building on the tremendous legacy of President Natalicio and leading this great university toward its bright future.”
“Heather Wilson’s decades of significant leadership experience in multiple arenas will serve her well as president of UTEP,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken said. “I look forward to working closely with her on behalf of this extraordinary institution with its essential mission of serving El Paso and Texas.”
Wilson succeeds Diana Natalicio, Ph.D., who announced in May that she would retire after serving as UTEP’s president for 30 years.
Wilson and her husband have three adult children. In addition to receiving her undergraduate degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy, she received her master’s and doctorate degrees in international relations at Oxford University. Wilson plans to step down from her current post as U.S. Air Force Secretary on May 31.